To me, perhaps the most distinctive feature of Reform Judaism is that we read text differently from the way other Jewish religious movements do. We are not conflicted by what the text in its most literal meaning does or does not say. We view the text as that of a biblical author in a particular time and a place who is speaking to a people about their destiny. The words of such authors became timeless because the destiny of this people became an eternal destiny and because embedded within the words lies the God-Idea of this People Israel. Parashat Ha'azinu speaks to us today in just such a way.
Modern biblical scholarship teaches us that the words of this parashah were written sometime before the destruction of the First Temple. As you read Ha'azinu, do you not sense that the people have already been living in its land for a long time? Do you get the sense that something of an apocalyptic nature is about to occur? The parashah begins by extolling and praising the Creator of all, the One who determined that the destiny of all other nations will be judged solely upon God's love for the Chosen People. We were plucked from the wilderness, nurtured and given great gifts by the One. We grew prosperous and successful. And feeling our strength, we grew arrogant and spurned the One who had chosen us. We were neglectful. As a result, frustrated and angry, our Creator determines to use those other nations as a tool of God's wrath. They will cause great suffering and devastation to Israel. However, God will not allow the destruction to be complete. Instead, Adonai will take us back once more and wreak vengeance on those who sought to annihilate Israel. Those nations who did not know our Creator, who would not acknowledge Adonai as God, will be driven from the land. This is the destiny of Israel and the dynamic relationship between God, Israel, and the nations that the author calls the heavens and earth to witness.
The dramatic poem ends. (Deuteronomy 32:43) The interaction between God, Israel, and the nations ends in triumph for the covenant people and their relationship with God. This is the history of Israel, the people about to emerge from the wilderness. But as soon as it is recited and the desert people are compelled to grasp the intensity of their relationship with God, the very serious nature of it, and the consequences that will result from their inability to deal with the greatness of the gifts bestowed on them, then Moses himself is confronted with his own failings. God declares that now Moses is to climb to the mountaintop and see the Promised Land, but he will never enter it. Once seeing it, he will die, "For you broke faith with Me among the Israelite people." (Deuteronomy 32:51)
As we read the words, we experience the richness of the language. There is a triumphal sense to it all. But when you study the content as a whole, do you not feel a sense of despair? Should Moses have been denied the Promised Land? Should that be the consequence of some isolated action? Were the Israelites so evil that the biblical author would attribute the responsibility for the impending tragedies to the people?
There are those who say that certain relationships and positions in life should be judged by a higher or very strict standard. Is that what Parashat Ha'azinu is really about? After all, the author calls upon the symbols of eternal existence, the heavens and the earth, to be witness to this drama. The text seems to be suggesting that Israel is the center of this universe- everything that happens is due to Israel's relationship with God. Great gifts are bestowed because of this, but it also imposes great burden in the form of responsibility that exists on its account. The Jewish community in North America has experienced unparalleled success. We are a people of privilege. Does that require that we be judged by a higher standard than others? Should we teach our children that more is expected of them because of what we have accomplished? If we are to be leaders in our community, should the consequences of our failings be considered greater than those of others with the same failings?
The heavens and the earth are witness against us. In the end, we will be judged by eternity.
The Israelites' forty years in the desert end on a tragic note. Moses our Teacher anticipates his death by preparing the Israelites for their life without him. He takes advantage of a teachable moment to impart helpful and important lessons to B'nei Yisrael.
A passionate and poetic retelling of history is the theme of the Shirah, poem, that Moses recites before his death. (Deuteronomy 32:1-43) The parashah concludes with straightforward and practical advice. Essentially, the message is that the longevity of the Jewish people depends on how they act in the Land of Israel. This organizing principle is the last real advice the Israelites receive from their leader.
Moses shares sage advice about survival in the Land of Israel with a captive audience. By means of the vivid imagery of his eloquent poem, Moses urges the Israelites to remember the past and to learn from their mistakes. Only by remembering the past and living according to God's commandments will the Israelites survive in the Land of Israel. Moses gives the Children of Israel a framework by which to live successfully: He says that Torah "is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to occupy upon crossing the Jordan." (Deuteronomy 32:46-47)
What does this formula mean to Reform Jews? How might Jews who don't feel bound by halachah grapple seriously with this formulaic section of Torah? Can Jews who actively choose not to live in the Land of Israel make this message relevant to their daily lives? If following this verse of Torah is supposed to make you "long endure," (i.e. successful) how can modern Jews justify their financial, social, and political success?
The longevity of humanity clearly depends on the choices that individuals make. Our actions certainly have an affect on the people in the many "lands" of our lives. "The land" can represent our homes, our places of work, and our places of worship.
Torah and her mitzvot provide a framework for our behavior. Striving to maintain a relationship with God improves the relationships we have with our families, friends, coworkers, and congregations. By learning from the mis-steps of the Israelites, we can improve the quality of the lives we lead, as well as those of our children. Our Jewish texts certainly have much to teach us about how to live in a righteous manner.
During this time of cheshbon nefesh, taking account of what we have done during the past year, let us learn from our people's past as well as our own individual pasts. By taking time to remember and taking our collective Jewish memory into account, we can make our New Year a Shanah Tovah U'Metukah.
Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,555–1,566; Revised Edition, pp. 1,398–1,412
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,251–1,270